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Ohioans favor farming, but food safety concerns rise

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Written Tuesday, November 11, 2008  

Although Ohioans continue to feel positive about farming's contribution to overall quality of life, their anxiety about food safety continues to rise.

That's significant, because concerns about the economy appear to have overshadowed other types of concerns that respondents were asked about in the 2008 Ohio Survey of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Issues.

"Of all of our data points since we began doing this survey in 2002, the one about food safety concern is the one that jumps out as something that is steadily increasing," said Jeff Sharp, associate professor in rural sociology who coordinates the implementation of the biennial survey. "There's something going on there."

The survey is conducted every two years. This year, the 12-page survey was mailed to 3,500 randomly selected Ohioans. The response rate was over 48 percent, which is lower than in previous years but still favorable for mail surveying, Sharp said.

Sharp prepared a report on the highlights of the survey, available online at http://ohiosurvey.osu.edu/publications/general.html . Future reports will describe results on specific topics in more detail, including respondents' perceptions of local foods, and differences between rural and urban respondents' views and adaptations to the current economic situation.

In examining the basic findings, Sharp said 57 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "Food is not as safe as it was 10 years ago," compared to 44 percent in 2006, and 40 percent in 2002. Furthermore, the number of respondents who "strongly" agreed with that statement jumped from 14 percent in 2002 up to 26 percent in 2008, indicating that feelings about food safety are becoming even stronger among some Ohioans.

Neal Hooker, an associate professor of agricultural, environmental, and development economics and a project team member, has conducted research on food safety issues and how they relate to policy. He said some of the increase seen this year could be due to short-term food safety issues that were in the news just before and during the distribution of the surveys, between March and June 2008, including concerns about food and other products from China and a produce-related salmonella problem at the beginning of the summer.

"But still, it looks like there is a definite trend" on increasing concern over the years, Hooker said. "People are becoming more aware of food safety issues, and, I'm just speculating, but that might be reflected in the numbers we're seeing in this survey."

Hooker is currently working with the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University examining people's perceptions of food safety risks -- those findings could illuminate what the researchers uncovered with the Ohio survey, he said.

Among the other findings of the survey:

Respondents still overwhelmingly agree with the statement, "Overall, farming positively contributes to the quality of life in Ohio," with 87 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing with it. "Thatís a high level of support, but the agriculture community must still work to maintain that high level of confidence," Sharp said.

More than half of respondents (57 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that "Increased regulation of the treatment of animals in farming is needed," a figure comparable to the 51 percent who agreed with the statement in 2006, but about 10 percent higher than the level of concern in 2002 and 2004.

Concern about global warming fell slightly in 2008, to 37 percent "very concerned" compared with a high of 41 percent in 2006.

Concern about various economic issues were the highest among all issues the survey asked about, with 93 percent "very concerned" about the rising cost of gas and heating fuel; 86 percent about the rising cost of food; 78 percent about the high debt levels of Americans; and 75 percent about the loss of Ohio jobs due to globalization.

"Clearly, the economy is front and center as an issue, and concerns about it outweigh those about the environment and agriculture," Sharp said. "But I think communities that look at agriculture as a local economic development activity -- for example, growing and marketing local foods as an economic opportunity -- will find that doing so will resonate with residents."

The Ohio Survey of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Issues was first conducted in 2002. It is sponsored by the Social Responsibility Initiative in Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. For more information, or to schedule a presentation about the findings, contact Jeff Sharp at (614) 292-9410 or sharp.123@osu.edu .

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